Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Though your dog may run off, that doesn't mean it's unhappy
Hello Gail: My interest is in the bond people form with dogs. I had a Corgi that I loved dearly, but I don't think he liked me much. He constantly ran away, would run into any open door and stay until the people read his tags and called me. I had him for 11 years, and he did this pretty much for 11 years.
I now have two spayed females, a 3-year-old Pembroke Corgi and a 1½-year-old Dachshund/Corgi mix. The dogs don't walk with me, but pull me down the street. The Corgi mix has been to dog training and ignores me when we walk. I think there is something missing in how I relate to my dogs, but I'm not sure what it is. I would really like to learn how to form a closer bond with my dogs.
Answer: I love relationship questions since the relationship we share with dogs is what my entire career is all about. We humans tend to anthropomorphize our dogs' behavior, i.e., assuming human characteristics and motivation. It can be difficult for many dog owners (including me sometimes) to understand that our dogs' behavior doesn't necessarily reflect how they feel about us.
Dogs run out open doors and fail to come when called. These behaviors have nothing to do with their feelings about us and have everything to do with whatever is attracting them or whatever they're enjoying when they ignore our call.
Cannon, my bearded collie, "ran away from home" twice, both times finding a weakness in our perimeter fence. He ended up at the Animal Shelter (sort of embarrassing for this dog trainer to have to pay the fine and pick up her dog).
Cannon, much like the reader's dog, loved people and dogs. He would have happily entered a welcoming home and stayed as long as the people would have kept him. Did that mean that Cannon didn't "love" me? That he wasn't bonded with me? He absolutely did and was! Even at the Animal Shelter, he was friendly and happy with all the staff that interacted with him. He ate the food they gave him, and acted like a dog without a care in the world. But when he heard my voice as I walked down the aisle toward where he was kenneled, he screamed and barked with delight until I got to his kennel and let him jump all over me with joy (as I cried with relief that he was safe).
It is absolutely normal for dogs to want to investigate and explore, and this interest has nothing to do with having a good relationship with the owner. It has everything to do with the interesting, enticing and exciting sights and odors he experiences on his adventures. As with any dog behavior, if the dog experiences a positive result, he is more likely to repeat that behavior. Such is the case with having escaped once or twice out an open door, or as with Cannon, getting out of our yard.
The first time Cannon escaped, he pushed through a portion of the fence that was broken. We didn't know about the break until we examined the fencing to see how he had gotten out. We repaired that section and looked for other possible breaks. The problem was that Cannon had a good time on his adventure. He explored new areas, met new dog friends and had a good time before being brought to the shelter by a nice person. These positive experiences taught Cannon that it was worthwhile to leave the yard, so he was motivated to find other ways to repeat his adventure, and worked hard to create another escape route. That didn't mean he didn't love living at home with us, and we need to remember that a dog's behavior isn't about us. It isn't personal.
Next week I'll address the reader's second question about her dogs pulling her, whether this might be a relationship problem, and what to do to create the best bonded relationship possible with our dogs.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn® near Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. You'll find past columns on her website. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester 03103.